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Testing COVID-19’s Academic Impact on Students

Early assessments seen as key to gauging learning gaps, social-emotional needs.

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When schools reopen, expect to see a lot of testing.

Sure, COVID-19 testing may be prevalent for students and their teachers. But in addition, a first step for many schools will be diagnostic tests to gauge learning gaps after months away. Some experts also are calling for assessments of students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs as they start the new academic year.

Early indicators suggest remote learning has proven very uneven. And longstanding achievement gaps may well be amplified by months of school closures. Many K-12 students may have missed out of remote instruction altogether. A new phrase in the education lexicon is the “COVID slide.”

“All of the research points to the fact that students’ needs will be incredibly varied, and it will be critical to assess their needs in a detailed way that can prompt action,” said Heather Hough, the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), in a recent commentary.

PACE, an independent, nonpartisan research center, is urging California officials to develop a centralized, diagnostic assessment for schools, both on academics and social and emotional well-being.

Hough cited multiple factors that help to explain the varied educational impacts of the crisis. Among them: uneven implementation of distance learning; varied access to WiFi and computers; and research suggesting that, typically, distance education is “less effective at meeting the needs of students learning English, students with disabilities, or students who were already behind and needing targeted support.”

On top of that, the health and economic effects of COVID-19 “have disproportionately affected low-income, African American, and Latinx families.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Pruitt, the co-chair of a 16-state education recovery task force, is also making the case for diagnostic testing when schools reopen.

“Every child has been affected by this [pandemic], even our high flyers,” said Pruitt, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, during a recent EWA webinar. “So we’re going to need to figure out a way to shift from a traditional assessment mindset into a more diagnostic one, at least at the beginning of the year.”

“We’re going to spend a significant amount of time diagnosing where these kids are, and then changing the instruction to match that,” he said.

Change in Plans for Testing

The big news on the testing front this spring was the cancellation of standardized, end-of-year exams for millions of students (not to mention the canceled SAT and ACT tests and replacement of in-person Advanced Placement exams with shorter home tests). Every state received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to skip their end-of-year tests for English language arts and math. And some analysts predict the pandemic could well lead to the end of annual, statewide assessments required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Whatever happens with that, increased attention is going toward the types of testing that will be especially important once schools reopen.

Writing for The 74, testing expert Laura Slover sees the need for multiple types of assessments in the fall. (To get even further in the weeds, check out this Education Week primer.)

“[A]s educators already know, end-of-year tests are only one source of information — and they are the type of assessment that is actually most removed from day-to-day teaching and learning,” said Slover, the CEO of CenterPoint Education Solutions and previously the leader of the PARCC testing consortium. “When it comes to informing instruction, very little will be lost if we take a pause on annual testing.”

Slover provides a helpful breakdown of several types of assessments education reporters may hear about this fall, and how they differ.

“Traditionally, schools and districts use a number of different types of assessments — interim (periodic tests to check progress toward end-of-year goals); formative (given during instruction to gauge understanding); and diagnostic (to pinpoint strengths and gaps to guide instruction) — to inform daily instruction as well as to determine student placement, drive planning, ensure common expectations and determine whether students are on track to meet learning goals.”

She adds: “These are the data sources that will matter most in this moment of educational upheaval — and beyond.”

In Baltimore, district schools CEO Sonja Santelises sees testing as a key ingredient to inform her work in the fall. Making kids repeat a grade because of COVID-19 is a nonstarter, she said during an EWA webinar. The name of the game is identifying gaps and “accelerating” learning, according to Santelises.

The superintendent said she intends to use “formative” assessment data when students return to help “organize and differentiate instruction.”

With the spring statewide assessments in English language arts and mathematics suspended, Santelises said she charged the district’s assessment team with delving into data previously collected to identify achievement gaps and the schools that were especially successful in accelerating learning.

A key challenge, Santelises said, is: “How do we get the children who are furthest behind, with the largest gaps, in front of … the teachers who we know from the data have the greatest skill in moving kids who are behind?”

Social, Emotional, and Mental Health Needs of Students

Santelises also emphasized identifying and meeting the social and emotional needs of students.

Taking the temperature of young people’s social, emotional, and mental health needs in the fall is being identified as a key action in multiple recent reports, including the American Enterprise Institute’s report, “A Blueprint for Back to School,” a set of recommendations from the Aspen Institute Education and Society Program, as well as from PACE.

Heather Hough of PACE said such “intake assessments” are important to “take stock of students’ social-emotional needs and assess their general well-being in terms of food and housing security; sense of belonging and safety at school; readiness to learn; and physical and mental health needs.”

Santelises, in an opinion piece for The Baltimore Sun, also emphasized the ways her schools will seek to meet students’ nonacademic needs.

“That means a strong initial focus on strengthening relationships between students and their teachers and other trusted adults, to make sure every student feels seen and known by caring adults,” she said.

Indeed, Santelises began her op-ed by reminding readers of the difficult situations many Baltimore families are facing.

“To say that things are desperate is not hyperbole,” she wrote. “In Baltimore, where I lead the city school district, life has been turned upside down for the vast majority of the families we serve — many of whom were inadequately served to begin with.”

EWA research specialist Sarah Johnson contributed research to this blog post.